Monday, October 31, 2011

Foster care in South Dakota: NPR stories get the ACLU’s attention

            This will give you some idea of the power of NPR’s three-part series on the destruction of Native American families by child protective services in South Dakota: The stories were a 2 x 4 so big they even got the attention of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

            That has the potential to jump-start efforts to stop the practices exposed by NPR.  Up to now, the small and underfunded Lakota People’s Law Project has stood virtually alone in fighting for the rights of South Dakota’s Native Americans under the Indian Child Welfare Act.  (Their director has posted a blog to answer the many people who have asked how they can help as individuals.)

            One would think ACLU involvement would be a no-brainier: A state tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation, repeatedly confuses family poverty with neglect and tramples on a federal law designed to protect Native Americans.

            But as I’ve noted often before on this Blog, too many of my fellow liberals forget everything they claim to believe about civil liberties as soon as someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears. That’s a major reason why the traditional due process protections Americans take for granted in other fields of law are almost non-existent in child welfare.  (For details see our Due Process Agenda).

            There is no clearer example of this myopia than the behavior of the ACLU, nationally and in most states.  Typically, when it comes to the rights of children to live with their own families, the ACLU is AWOL.  NCCPR’s founder, Elizabeth Vorenberg, resigned from the ACLU’s National Board over its failure to defend the civil liberties of families facing the unchecked power of child protective services.

            The child welfare field is filled with issues that would seem to be obvious choices for ACLU litigation: Secret trials, lack of adequate (or sometimes any) defense counsel, searches and seizures without warrants, and on and on. 

Refusing to defend children's Fourth Amendment rights

            But consider what happened this year when the first major child welfare case in 21 years, Camreta v. Greene, reached the U.S. Supreme Court.  As we explain on our special website about the case:

The child was only nine years old when she was called out of her classroom and forced to endure a two-hour interrogation by a male caseworker for the Oregon Department of Human Services because DHS had received a false allegation of sexual abuse.  Sitting silently in the room during the entire interrogation was another man - an armed deputy sheriff. 
            The child repeatedly denied any abuse, only to be browbeaten by the caseworker, who kept insisting she was giving the wrong answers while questioning the little girl about the most intimate details of her life. …  The experience so traumatized the child that she became physically ill.
           The child sued and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure had been violated.
            NCCPR’s Vice President, Carolyn Kubitschek represented the child. The Family Defense Center co-ordinated an extraordinary effort leading to the filing of 18 amicus briefs by 70 individuals and organizations in support of this child’s Fourth Amendment rights.

           Several of the groups, including the Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Practice,  Lawyers for Children, and the Children’s Law Clinic at Penn State University specialize in representing children in cases involving alleged child maltreatment.  All of them understood how destructive it is to a child to deny that child her rights under the Fourth Amendment.

            But not the ACLU.  The ACLU remained silent.

            It is much the same at the state level.  Over and over, families have told me about how they sought help from the ACLU in their state and were turned away.  Sometimes it’s even worse.  

In Indiana, the state chapter of the ACLU actually sued to block modest reductions in pay for foster parents.  Even if one believes that foster parents somehow should be exempt from the sacrifices being made by everyone else in a recession, (which can only lead to more cuts elsewhere, such as help for birth parents) how exactly is that a civil liberties issue? 

In Michigan, the ACLU did go to bat for the upper-middle-class white child taken from his parents after his father accidentally bought him Mike’s Hard Lemonade at a baseball game, and the redress they are seeking will help all families.  But they did nothing to help Maryanne Godboldo’s child, who is poor and Black, and was taken from her mother when she exercised her legal right to stop giving the child psychiatric medication with severe side-effects.   Godboldo and her grassroots allies had to win that case without the ACLU’s help.

Certainly, there are exceptions.  The ACLU of Pennsylvania repeatedly has championed the rights of children against the power of CPS agencies (their legal director is a member of NCCPR’s Board of Director).  And one of the class-action lawsuits that has helped dramatically improve child welfare in Illinois was brought by the Illinois ACLU.

Now, the South Dakota ACLU is stepping in to help champion the right of Native American children to their own families.  But the Indian Child Welfare Act is a federal law, and, as NPR notes, it is being violated in 32 states.  Where is the National ACLU?  Doing what it usually does: Exercising its very own right to remain silent.

Pride of the Yankees

Part of the explanation lies in an unfortunate decision made by the ACLU when it set up a Children’s Rights Project in 1979.  They hired as its director the person who was already running a similar project for the New York Civil Liberties Union – Marcia Lowry.

One of Marcia’s earliest suits in New York was an attempt to bolster the rights of foster parents to prevent children from being transferred to other homes – including the homes they came from in the first place.   Real champions of civil liberties, like Louise Gans, who then was with Community Action for Legal Services, were furious.  As Nina Bernstein writes in her brilliant book, The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care:

For Gans and many of her colleagues, the true road to children’s rights lay in defending poor parents against the state’s abuses of power.  Gans believed that poor families were routinely misled and mistreated by foster care agencies – their children unnecessarily removed, their visits curtailed, and reunification wrongfully discouraged.  More passionately that most, she felt that legal reform efforts should concentrate on changing the state’s s treatment of biological parents.  Yet here, instead was CLU litigation that risked establishing some kind of constitutional right for foster parents – another weapon agencies could use against poor families …
Gans and other Legal Services people felt embattled.  Their clients had terrible problems, and their staff and resources were always inadequate to help. By their standards the CLU was rich.   That made it all the more galling that with a million lawsuits to choose from, Lowry should bring one that in their view threatened to make things worse instead of better.

Or as Danny Greenberg, then Managing Attorney for MFY Legal Services put it in a confrontation with Ira Glasser, then executive director of the NYCLU (and later executive director of the ACLU):

My God, Ira.  Think of the class issues in this.  You think of yourself as a Brooklyn Dodger fan, a supporter of the underdog.  Only a Yankee fan could bring a lawsuit like this.  The Yankees would love this lawsuit.

Today, of course, Marcia Lowry still is the pride of the Yankees.

She actually left the ACLU to create the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” because even Ira Glasser’s liberalism was too much for her.  She told the Chronicle of Philanthropy that too much of what the ACLU did was tied to a “liberal agenda.”  Leaving the ACLU also may have made her more appealing to Carl Icahn, the corporate raider who once chaired her Board of Directors.

So no one should be surprised at CR’s response to NPR’s revelations about what’s being done to Native American families in South Dakota:


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Foster care in South Dakota: At last, “these people” are heard on NPR

NOW I remember why I used to be proud to work at a public radio station.

To hear the excellent NPR stories discussed in this post, follow this link

One of the earliest posts on this Blog concerned a dreadful story aired on what was then known as National Public Radio concerning the death of Nixzmary Brown in New York City in January, 2006.

The story gave a full airing to those who said the case “raised questions” about whether the city had been doing too much to keep families together  - with no response from families who had lost children to foster care.

When we complained to NPR’s ombudsman at the time, he contacted an editor who worked on the story, Andrea DeLeon.  She said of parents:

I don't believe these people are key stakeholders in a story about whether the system is functioning well today. [Emphasis added].

That contempt permeated NPR coverage of child welfare for several years thereafter

That could be seen clearly when four separate NPR programs covered a report about trans-racial adoption – and talked only to white people.

It could be seen in the story in which reporter Michelle Trudeau’s very first sentence was an outright lie:

A child is placed in foster care only as a last resort, when parental maltreatment or neglect is extreme and unremitting.

At the time I wrote that “The only reason I can't call that a baldfaced lie is that I don't think she would make this false allegation on purpose.”  But that was three years ago.  An honest error that remains uncorrected no longer is honest.

Things did start to get better more recently.  Tell Me More did an excellent report on racial bias in child welfare and, of course, recently NPR’s flagship news programs,  All Things Considered and Morning Edition, aired an excellent series on parents falsely accused of killing their children.

But Tell Me More is a program aimed at minorities.  And the fatality stories dealt with a very small subsection of the problem, and one of the few where the issue reaches into the middle class.

The heart of the problem – poverty and racism - never made it to the heart of the NPR schedule – until now.

Now Michelle Trudeau’s error of commission, Andrea DeLeon’s error of omission, and all the errors in between, all the mistakes that led me to conclude that NPR stood for “No Parent Response” are being corrected – the record is being set straight and then some.

The corrective comes in the form of a superb three-part series now airing on the network.  Part one aired on All Things Considered yesterday.  Part two is scheduled to air on that program today and part three airs on Morning Edition tomorrow [Oct. 27.]

The stories are the result of a year-long investigation by reporter Laura Sullivan and Producer Amy Walters into the child welfare system in South Dakota – and in particular the widespread needless destruction of Native American families in that state. 

South Dakota is among the worst by almost any measure.  It takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation, it places children in the worst form of “care” – group homes and institutions – at one of the highest rates in the nation, and it tears apart Native American families at one of the highest rates in the nation.  In short, South Dakota hit the trifecta of child welfare failure.

NPR’s searing stories are revealing it all for the first time.

But South Dakota is not an isolated example.  Plenty of states are as bad, some are worse.  And almost every state has similar problems, the only difference is one of degree.

This is the NPR that made me so proud to be working for a public radio station fresh out of journalism school decades ago. This is the NPR I remember from before it became gentrified and too-precious-by-half.  This is the NPR that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.  I hope it stays around for while.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Foster care in D.C.: The stories behind the statistics

A previous post to this Blog dealt with a report by the District of Columbia Citizens Review Panel (CRP), a group mandated by federal law to assess the performance of D.C.’s child welfare agency, the Child and Family Services Administration.

The report is a scathing indictment of CFSA for tearing apart hundreds of families needlessly – and often, probably, illegally.  The previous post sums up the facts and figures.  But one of the most notable features of the report are the case histories, and the appalling responses from CFSA.

Consider this case:

The “D” Family. A child was living with his uncle, who reported to CFSA that he was facing eviction. The uncle said he was feeling overwhelmed, “tired, frustrated, and hungry” and that caring for the child would hinder his relinquishing his apartment. CFSA interpreted this situation as an admission of the uncle’s inability to raise the child and an immediate threat to the child – even though the eviction was not imminent and the uncle’s story could reasonably have been understood as a request for assistance. CFSA removed the child.

The case record reveals a later email from CFSA’s lawyer to a Child Protective Services staff member stating “had CFSA responded differently to the uncle’s repeated requests for help, this case might never have led to a removal.” The Panel agrees with this assessment. No imminent danger was present. The eviction was not scheduled for several weeks. CFSA could have helped the uncle obtain a housing lawyer to help him fight the eviction in landlord-tenant court or helped him obtain housing assistance, but instead CFSA removed the child. It is possible that the uncle would have refused to take the child back even if CFSA had provided this sort of assistance. But there is no way to know. We do know that the uncle did take the child back just three days later – strongly suggesting that the uncle did desire to keep the child. [Emphasis added].

In response, CFSA argues that it was absolutely essential to remove this child on the spot because, according to the case record:

the child had been born prematurely had been exposed to PCP and was believed to have developmental delays. … [T]he uncle “noted several times …that he would not take the child back [emphasis added]… noting that he wants to leave the apartment as quickly as he could and having to care for the child would hinder this effort.”

The investigator further quoted that the uncle as saying [sic] that providing care for his nephew was “getting to me feeling overwhelmed” and the uncle was “tired, frustrated and hungry.”

Further, the uncle was himself a recovering PCP user.  The dangers associated with forcing this man to continue to care for a child under these circumstances are not acknowledged by the CRP reviewers.

But, of course, neither the CRP reviewers nor anyone else was suggesting that the uncle be forced to keep the child.  Rather, CRP was suggesting that had CFSA offered to ease the enormous stress faced by the uncle by providing him the help he needed – including a lawyer to fight the eviction or a new place for the entire family to live - the uncle would no longer feel overwhelmed and be glad to continue taking care of his nephew.

The fact that the nephew was, in fact, returned to the uncle three days later, suggests that CRP got it right.  And, of course, it’s not just the Review Panel that drew this conclusion.  As is noted in the Panel report, CFSA’s own lawyer reviewing the case reached the same conclusion.

The Panel also found appalling behavior by CFSA in cases involving battered mothers, like this one:

The “L” Family. The father of four children assaulted their mother. The Metropolitan Police Department arrested both the father and the mother following this incident.  … An aunt of the children appeared on the scene but neither MPD nor CFSA considered releasing the children to her. The case record reflected no effort to determine the mother’s wishes regarding short-term care of her children. CFSA removed the children. Their mother was released from jail very shortly and CFSA returned the children three days after their removal. CFSA could have avoided this traumatic separation and the placement of the mother on the child protection registry by permitting the aunt to take the children or asking the mother to designate a temporary caretaker via a custodial power of attorney.

Incredibly, CFSA responds that whenever it uses its emergency power to tear apart a family it has concluded, on its own and on the spot, that the parents must be “unfit” and it would be “improper” to have an “unfit” parent “make a custodial decision.”

But how, exactly, does being beaten by a man make a mother unfit?  This speaks volumes about the mindset at CFSA, as does this case, which raises the same issue:

The “M” Family. This child’s parents were in the process of divorcing, and her
father physically assaulted her mother. MPD arrested both parents and contacted CFSA. The child
’s brother was temporarily staying with the children’s grandmother. The grandmother physically came to CFSA to request that she take care of the child who was removed, but CFSA did not release the child to her grandmother. The case record indicates no effort to ask the mother to designate a caretaker. CFSA removed the child, placed her with strangers, and placed her mother on the child protection registry. Her mother was quickly released and reunified with her daughter four days after the removal.

Thanks to a successful class-action lawsuit, in New York City such behavior by the child welfare agency is illegal.  (NCCPR’s Vice President, Carolyn Kubitschek, was co-counsel for the battered women who brought the suit.)  That’s because the harm of removing a child from a parent is actually worse for that child, sometimes far worse, when the parent is, herself a victim of domestic violence.  As one expert testified, taking a child from a battered mother because that mother has been beaten “is tantamount to pouring salt on an open wound.”

Unfortunately for the children, at CFSA, the policy on these cases boils down to “please pass the salt.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Foster care in Arizona: Thank you, Laurie Roberts

That headline is not meant to be sarcastic, though I can see how readers might think it was.

After all, I gave Roberts hell in a couple of posts on this Blog not long ago – and a couple more all the way back in 2007.  Not to mention the stuff I’ve said in the comment section under her columns.

So what does Roberts go and do?  She calls me.  Not to tell me off, but to ask me about NCCPR’s approach to fixing child welfare systems in general and Arizona in particular.  She heard me out for at least 90 minutes – and then wrote about it in her column today.

A lot of reporters wouldn’t do that – let alone a columnist who according to the “rules” for these things can be as one-sided as she wants.  It shows a lot of class.  I will try to live up to that example in dealing with the people who give me hell – at least those who sign their names.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Foster care in DC: District’s own expert panel blasts widespread needless removal of children

            It’s not unusual for outside agitators – like me – to say that a given child welfare system is taking away a whole lot of children needlessly.  It’s quite unusual when the charge comes from a panel of experts named by the community’s own government leaders.

            But that’s what happened last month in Washington, D.C., in the form of a scathing report about the D.C. Child and Family Services Administration.  The report was issued by the District’s child welfare Citizen Review Panel (CRP).  Federal law requires at least one such panel in every state to examine child protective services agencies. 
            The D.C. panel was appointed by the mayor and the D.C. Council.  It’s quite a distinguished group.  Members of the panel include a former social services administrator in Maryland who now is the legislative policy associate for the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators – a trade association for agencies like CFSA.  Another member spent 23 years in human services, including five years as a CPS caseworker.  Another is a senior attorney for the D.C. Children’s Law Center – the group that represents children in child welfare cases in the District.  Another served as Coordinator of Child Abuse and Neglect for the D.C. Public Schools.

            The Review Panel was disturbed by the large numbers of children taken from their parents by CFSA who were sent home again within four months.  Typically, anywhere from 18 to 35 percent are sent home that quickly.  Depending on how you run the numbers that’s an average of anywhere from 161 to 225 children per year.

 It’s not that the CRP doesn’t want children returned home quickly.  But it raised an obvious question: If the children could be returned within four months, did they really need to be taken at all?  After carefully reviewing a random sample of such cases, the CRP concluded that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the answer was no. Said the panel:

This study concludes that, when children leave foster care quickly – a significant and longstanding feature of the Districts child welfare system – it is likely that CFSA removed the child unnecessarily.

            Indeed, the report found that only 25 percent of removals met the legal standard for taking a child away on the spot, without even asking a court’s permission first.  Such removals are supposed to take place only when CFSA “has reasonable grounds to believe that the child is in immediate danger” and removal is necessary to eliminate the danger.  Yet CFSA uses this grab-the-child-first-ask-the-court-later power in 97 percent of all removals.

            Now consider the implications:  75 percent of the cases did not meet the standard for an emergency removal, and that’s pretty much the only kind of removal CFSA does.  That means that every year, D.C. tears anywhere from 121 to 169 children from their families unnecessarily. 

            But that’s probably an underestimate.  Because when families get decent lawyers, the number of children sent home fast soars.

Nearly three years ago, Prof. Matthew Fraidin of the University of the District of Columbia Law School presented the results of his law students’ work representing families whose children had been taken away by CFSA.  (His findings are included in material he released at a joint news conference with NCCPR in January, 2009.)  In fully 60 percent of the cases the children were returned within three months – and in most of those cases, they were returned within a week.

            If the real number of children who can go home that quickly is 60 percent, then the real number of wrongful removals every year is nearly half of all the children taken away by CFSA.

            “For these children,” notes the report, “these are severe, possibly life-changing events.” 


            The review panel and Prof. Fraidin are not alone in sounding the alarm about wrongful removal in the District. 

            ● Organizations that provide “guardians ad litem” for children in child welfare cases typically only complain when a child welfare agency isn’t taking away even more children.  So it speaks volumes that Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children's Law Center - the group which provides such representation in D.C. wrote a letter to The Washington Post in which she estimated that at least 100 DC children every year are taken from their families unnecessarily.  She writes that "These removals traumatize children and devastate families." 

            ● The independent monitor overseeing the long-running class-action lawsuit settlement in the District also examined a sample of cases. The CRP report points out that the monitor found that CFSA’s action in immediately removing the children was justified in fewer than half of those cases.

One of the strongest features of the CRP report is the case examples, like this one:

In one case, CFSA refused to release two children to their own mother who had done nothing wrong. The children’s maternal grandmother was a recovering substance abuser and had been clean and sober for a substantial amount of time. Their mother reasonably relied on the grandmothers babysitting. Unfortunately, the grandmother relapsed one evening and left the young children alone. CFSA could not immediately locate the mother and reasonably took custody of the children. But when the mother showed up at CFSA that same day, CFSA inexplicably refused to release her children to her, despite its legal obligation to release them to her “with all reasonable speed.”Instead, CFSA kept the children in foster care for three days and then released them.

The report provides an excellent discussion of precisely what child welfare agencies so often forget – the need to balance harms:

Many parents have had the experience of a toddler crying when dropped off at preschool – even with a parent giving him a goodbye hug, assuring him that she will return within hours, and turning him over to a classroom full of unfamiliar faces.

Now imagine that same child taken away by a stranger, over the parents objection, and without anyone able to tell him what will happen next or even when he will see his parent again. Days pass and people still cannot explain what will happen next, or why he hasnt been able to see mommy for a long time. Weeks pass, and he gets to see his mom for brief visits, and then is taken away again, with no idea when he will see her again. It is not hard to see the emotional toll these separations impose on children or their parents.

On the other hand, very real safety concerns are at stake. Some children do suffer serious abuse and neglect at the hands of their parents and in some cases the only available response is to separate the child from the parent because the emotional harm of that separation is less than the harm inflicted by the parent
s abuse or neglect.

But over and over again, the report found, CFSA flunks this balance-of-harms test.


In a response to the repot most notable for its sheer snottiness (read it and see for yourself – it’s included with the report) CFSA insists that every single decision it made in every one of these cases was the right call.  On the other hand, in a very good story about the report in The Washington Post, CFSA’s acting director talks about how it’s reduced entries into care this year (though even at the reduced rate, children in Washington D.C. are torn from their homes at a far higher rate than in New York, Chicago and Miami, among other cities, even when rates of child poverty are taken into account).  She also discusses new programs to keep families together.

So apparently CFSA’s position is: Look at all we’re doing to fix the problems we deny ever existed in the first place!

In a future post: More case examples, and CFSA’s appalling response to the report. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Child welfare and race: The smoking transcript

The director of Every Child Matters tells Congress that the states that do best at preventing child abuse have “smaller, whiter populations.”

I’ve written before about the hype and hysteria spread by the group that calls itself “Every Child Matters” in its effort to stampede child welfare systems into diverting $3 billion to $5 billion into hiring more child protective services workers to take away more children.

I’ve noted how their executive director, Michael Petit, spent 45 minutes comparing rates of child abuse deaths among the states – and maligning states that allegedly rated high – only to admit that it was, in fact, impossible to make such a comparison.

Over the past couple of years, Petit spent an enormous amount of time and effort  trying to get Congress to hold a hearing on the issue where he could be in the spotlight as a witness.  If any nonprofit has gone through so much just to give its director five minutes of this kind of fame (you don’t even get 15 for your statement) I’m not aware of it.

On July 12, Petit got his hearing, before a House subcommittee, complete with the obligatory celebrity witness, a second-tier cast member from Law and Order: SVU, to guarantee a crowd.  But I’ve said nothing about Petit’s remarks until now because one thing he said was so disturbing I decided to wait until the transcript came out to be sure I’d heard it correctly. 

Unfortunately, I did, in fact, hear what I thought I heard.  It happened when Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Washington) asked Petit “what states have had the best system in place to predict and deal with and prevent [child abuse]?”

Petit said it was a complicated question, and he explained some of the complexity.  And then he said:

But I will tell you the states that do the best overall are the ones that have smaller, whiter populations. 

Petit immediately realized that might not have been the best thing to say, and rushed to clarify:

So where ‑‑ which translates into less poverty and less complicated issues around domestic violence, around imprisonment issues, around substance abuse."

But then he couldn’t resist raising the issue of race again:

If you take a look at the overall distribution of these issues, they are concentrated especially most severely in the states with large minority populations.  And I say that, saying that that correlates, in turn, with high rates of poverty in those communities.


Notice how Petit repeats the common canard about minorities and substance abuse.  In fact, as the Annie E. Casey Foundation notes in this report:

Despite being more likely to be poor, black and Hispanic Americans use drugs at levels comparable to, and in some instances, lower than white Americans.

So if Petit is really referring to the impact of substance abuse on child maltreatment, why would he claim that “whiter” states do better at curbing the child abuse that stems from substance abuse?  Perhaps he got his misimpression the way so many Americans do – by looking at who gets punished for substance abuse.

As that same Casey study notes:

Despite having drug use rates comparable to whites, black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to experience negative consequences from drug use, including being involved in the child welfare system and in the criminal justice system          

And as The New York Times reported in this recent story about children being taken from their parents because of those parents’ marijuana use:

Over all, the rate of marijuana use among whites is twice as high as among blacks and Hispanics in the city, the data show, but defense lawyers said these cases were rarely if ever filed against white parents.

So first, child welfare systems apply racially-biased double standards when it comes to dealing with substance-abusing parents, and then Michael Petit runs to Congress to perpetuate stereotypes resulting from those very double standards.

A little later in the hearing Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) a hero of the civil rights movement, demonstrated grace equal to his well-known courage and gave Petit a chance to walk back his remarks.  But Petit only dug himself in deeper with comments veering disturbingly close to the stereotypes about Black women debunked in this excellent article from Colorlines.  Petit’s comments can be found by going to the transcript and doing a search for “Mr. Lewis.”

There is no evidence that there is more child maltreatment (or more of what we label child maltreatment) in poor Black communities than in poor white communities.  Even those who are “in denial” about the racial bias that permeates decisions to take away children claim that Blacks are overrepresented in child welfare systems only because of the pressures of poverty.  (In fact, the overrepresentation of African American children in foster care is due to both poverty and racism, as is discussed in detail in our Issue Paper on child welfare and race.)

So all Michael Petit needed to say was that the states doing better have smaller, richer populations.  When it comes to solving the problems, he’d still probably be wrong -  there is strong evidence, for example, that one of America’s most successful child welfare systems is the one in Alabama - but at least he wouldn’t have taken any gratuitous swipes at an entire race. 

Michael Petit is not a racist.  Like most people in child welfare, he cares deeply about helping vulnerable children, of all races, and sincerely believes his approach will help do just that.   But his comments reveal the extent to which our feelings about race bias our policy choices more than we realize - until something slips out, as it did at the hearing.  And what do such comments from Petit, who once ran an entire child welfare system and who had been a top official in the Child Welfare League of America, tell us about the unconscious biases of frontline workers and others when they decide to remove children from their homes?


Petit’s comments raise another question that is at least as troubling:

Why have none among Petit’s small group of allies, the groups supporting his crusade to divert funds to hiring more CPS workers, called him out on this?  Particularly disturbing is the silence from the National Association of Social Workers, which remains a part of the alliance Petit formed to push his agenda and continues to promote it.

Sadly, this isn’t all that puzzling. 

NASW is a trade association for social workers.  So of course, NASW would be pushing Petit’s agenda.  Three billion dollars can buy a lot of social work jobs.

But I would have hoped Petit’s linking child abuse to race would have prompted an end to an unseemly alliance.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Child Welfare in New York: Everyday Horrors

An abridged version of this post is available on the website of the trade journal Youth Today.          

UPDATE, OCTOBER 6: At the end of this post see why the organizers of today's webinar will NOT be answering the questions raised in this post

  I read about a horror story last month.

            It wasn’t one of those cases where a child died even though the case file had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade.  Nor was it one of those cases where a child was taken from parents who could have been mother- and father-of-the-year only to die in foster care.

            Those horrors are the extremes and they are very rare.

            What made this case so horrible is the fact that it’s so typical.  It’s also the kind of case child protective services (CPS) agencies almost always hide behind confidentiality rules.

            This one became public – minus identifying information and with all names changed – thanks to a webinar about ChildStat, the pride and joy of John Mattingly, former commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).  At ChildStat meetings, ACS officials go over data from one region and pour over one case, chosen at random.

            It’s the 12-page narrative of that one case that provides this rare x-ray of the soul of a CPS agency.   They never got to it during the webinar, but they might during a follow-up webinar tomorrow.  They asked for questions in advance.  I've put mine at the end of this post.

To really get the picture, the entire narrative needs to be read, because, in every sense of the term, the devil is in the details.  I hope readers will take the time to go through it, and then compare this example of typical practice to an example of best practice from the latest newsletter of one of the smartest groups helping child welfare agencies improve, the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group.  Readers also might want to consider these questions:

●How would your own family rate under the kind of scrutiny the family in the New York City case was forced to endure? 

●Can you imagine a government agency trying to micromanage a white, middle-class family the way ACS did in this case?

            Meanwhile, I’ll try to summarize.

            For starters, in half the states, this case never would have brought a CPS agency to the family’s door at all.  The allegation was “educational neglect,” something discussed often on this Blog.  According to a comprehensive study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a study commissioned by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, half the states wisely leave such cases to the schools to sort out.

            The allegation was that the older child, age 8, missed 25 days of school between September and early April, and was late 44 times.  The parents had gotten lots of warnings and they allegedly were too lenient when the child said she was sick. 

            That’s it.  No allegations of beating, torture, or starvation.  Nothing about sexual abuse or parental drug abuse.

            The parents are Hispanic, their income is about 140 percent of the national poverty line – and remember, this is New York City.  They sleep on a queen size bed.  (I have no idea why that is relevant to anything, but it’s included in the narrative.)

Clearly the family has plenty of reason for stress to begin with.  Nevertheless, the picture that emerges, in spite of the narrative, is of parents who love their children, have been trying their best and are guilty of, at worst, human fallibility.  They also had tried, without success, to get the school to help with the children’s problems – possibly engendering the hostility of the teacher who, by the mother’s account, treated her like dirt – and then reported her to ACS.


            But this one allegation against this admirable family was enough to turn their lives upside down for at least a month (the case was still open when the narrative was written).  There was one inspection visit after another.  Over and over the children were questioned about the most intimate aspects of their lives.  Had anyone touched them inappropriately? (No.) Did their parents ever hit them? (Yes, they got spankings.) Did the parents ever hit each other? (No.)  Do they argue? (Yes – imagine that.)   Because of the spankings the caseworker was ordered to be sure she “assessed the children for marks and bruises each time she visited.”  I wonder what the children had to endure to meet that requirement?
            The parents underwent a similar grilling.  When ACS wasn’t at the door at all hours, ACS was dragging them down to the borough office.

            Though best practice in child welfare says you assess a family’s strengths as well as their weaknesses, from day one these parents were treated only as suspects.  Every alleged failing was documented in the most minute detail, creating a 12-page litany of finger-wagging. 

            “The parents denied any domestic violence substance abuse or problems with physical and mental health,” the narrative says.  Denied?  They’d never been accused of anything like that in the first place. Yet throughout the narrative that word, - denied - is used over and over to describe the parents’ responses.  The same information could have been conveyed to the ChildStat meeting by writing “the parents said they did not…” 

            And the denials were never enough.  When asked, the younger child, age 6, says Dad sometimes drinks alcohol.  So the caseworker is instructed to go back and grill the child about “what he drank and his behavior.”  The children repeatedly say there’s no domestic violence.   But a supervisor says “domestic violence assistance was also a possibility.” Another supervisor tells the worker to “inquire more about Joy’s [the older child’s] exposure to her parents’ arguments and how it might affect her.” 

            The Child Protective Manager (CPM), the highest-ranking official to look at the case,  

noted that her concern was that Joy held herself responsible for getting her mother into trouble because she did not want to go to school. The CPM added that the mother should have provided Joy with more structure regarding her school attendance.  … She added that [the mother] should take full responsibility for having not provided structure for her children.

            The caseworker concluded that the parents did not “demonstrate developmentally appropriate expectations of all children” and did not “attend to the needs of all children and prioritizes [sic] the children’s needs above his/her own desires.”  Apparently this was based on the fact that when the bus was late, they didn’t find another way to get the children to school.

            It wasn’t just the parents put through the wringer.  The amount of time put into the case by the caseworker boggles the mind.  At one point, the caseworker came out of a meeting with her supervisor with “a list of at least 22 follow-ups … to complete” including “counseling the parents about inappropriate uses of corporal punishment” though there was no allegation or evidence that this was a problem.  No wonder caseworkers are drowning in the demands placed upon them and may well miss a child in real danger, as is well documented in an excellent New York Magazine story.  According to the Vera Institute study, fully 19 percent of the cases investigated by ACS are allegations of “educational neglect.”


            At no time were the children taken from the home.  What happened to this family was probably the minimum amount of trauma a CPS investigation can inflict. In the end, the intervention by ACS may have improved the children’s attendance and prompted the school to get them some help the parents couldn’t get on their own. 

            But the family paid way too high a price for this “success” - and it was entirely unnecessary.

            In one of the seminal works of the 20th Century about child welfare, the late Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, and Albert J. Solnit write that:

Children react even to temporary infringement of parental autonomy with anxiety, diminishing trust, loosening of emotional ties, or an increasing tendency to be out of control. The younger the child, and the greater his own helplessness and dependence, the stronger is his need to experience his parents as his lawgivers, safe, reliable, all-powerful, and independent.

            And that’s even without all those assessments looking for bruises from spankings.

            In this case mom is faulted for being too lenient, too willing to accept it when her daughter said she was too sick to go to school.  But what happens now, when she tries to be more assertive, after ACS has spent a month badgering the family and undermining mom’s authority?

            And then there’s the incident with the lamp.

            Sometime after the investigation began, the older child explained that Danny, the six-year-old, “burned himself on a lamp when he attempted to fix a light bulb that blew out. She said that Danny’s teacher told him that he needed to help his mother more and so her brother wanted to fix the light bulb. Joy said that the lamp hit Danny in his face, but he did not cry. Joy denied that her parents have been arguing.”

            Yes, Danny explained the incident the same way, a pediatrician confirmed that this was a credible explanation and, fortunately, the caseworker accepted it.  But try to imagine the fear this family endured when it happened, knowing they were in the middle of a CPS investigation.

            The rationale for doing all this to a family, of course, boils down to “you never know.”  Like the fanatical drug warriors who see marijuana as a “gateway drug” today’s “child savers” to use the term their 19th Century counterparts gave themselves, see educational neglect as a gateway allegation. The child missed school.  So maybe mom’s a drunk and dad’s a pervert – you never know, right?

            But there is no evidence that children suffer more abuse in the states that don’t require their CPS agencies to investigate “educational neglect.”  And after doing a comprehensive reading of a random sample of cases, the Vera Institute researchers found that the notion that educational neglect is the "tip of the iceberg," is nonsense. The study found that generally, "educational neglect" is the tip of nothing except some kind of school problem, often one that is not the parent's fault.  Sending a CPS worker to the door only makes the family defensive and makes it harder to solve whatever problem may be causing absenteeism.

            As regular readers of this Blog know, the study authors recommended that if New York must keep investigating “educational neglect” it should be done through “differential response” in which either the CPS agency or a private contractor sends out a worker to offer a helping hand instead of a wagging finger.   Had that been done here, the same potential positive results would have been achieved with no cross-examination of young children, no comprehensive visual inspections for bruises and no documentation in the case file of the size bed on which the parents sleep.

            State after state has adopted this approach.  Every study finds no compromise of child safety and some find that safety improves. 

            But for at least a decade, since before he ever got to ACS, John Mattingly has opposed differential response.  Finally, late in 2009, he agreed to pilot it in some educational neglect cases.  Several months later, and without announcing it publicly, he put the pilot on hold indefinitely, something uncovered by some enterprising journalism students.

            So right now, some other New York City family is enduring the same trauma as the one in this narrative.  It happens all the time.  That’s why it’s a horror story.

                    Some questions for the webinar 
                   (and why they won't be answered)                               

Tomorrow, the same people who held the original webinar will conduct a follow up webinar.  They asked for questions in advance.  Here are mine:

●The narrative repeatedly uses the word “denied” to characterize comments by the parents and the children, as in “denied any domestic violence” “denied use of any drugs” etc.  In the absence of any evidence contradicting the “denials,” why wasn’t neutral wording such as “said he did not use any drugs” used in this narrative – and what does this say about the mindset of ACS workers and the author of this narrative?

●There is repeated discussion of alleged deficits in this family, and no explicit discussion of strengths.  Why not?

●On page 12 it states that “The supervisor told the CPS that she needed to “document that she assessed the children for marks and bruises each time she visited.”  How, precisely, are such “assessments” done?

●What did these children gain from this process that outweighed their being repeatedly questioned about the most intimate aspects of their lives and “assessed” on every visit for marks and bruises? 

●What did the family gain that outweighs the stress of a full-scale child abuse investigation?

●What did they gain that couldn’t have been accomplished, without the collateral damage, through a family assessment (differential response) instead of an investigation?

●Was all of the time and effort expended on this case the highest, best use of the time of the caseworker and the supervisor?

●According to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice in roughly half the states a case like this would not be subject to the jurisdiction of the child protective services agency at all.  What evidence do you have that children who miss a lot of school in those states are less safe or more poorly served by other interventions short of CPS involvement than children in New York City?

●The Vera study recommended that cases like this one be handled through “differential response.”  Every evaluation of differential response across the country shows that it does not compromise safety and some show safety improvements. Why did ACS at first agree to try differential response in some educational neglect cases and then renege on that promise?

UPDATE: And here is the response I got from the organizer of the webinar concerning why these questions will not be answered:

Thank you for sharing your blog posting with us. You have raised some very important case practice issues that merit further dialogue and debate. The focus of our webinar/learning lab is on the implementation of ChildStat, not on ACS case practice or policy decisions. Of course, many of the issues you outline are the very ones that the ChildStat initiative itself was designed to address - by providing time for managers and administrators to review and critique case narratives such as this one, to "get on the balcony" and observe what is actually happening on the frontlines, the agency can really examine "the devil in the details," as you put it, and have an open, honest dialogue about what happened, why it happened, and what needs to happen going forward to better reflect best or promising approaches.

Our national webinar series, including learning labs like this one, provides information about what it takes to implement specific workforce and leadership improvements - helping states, tribes and counties learn about promising macro-level approaches from one another, not analyzing case practice on the frontlines in a particular jurisdiction. This case narrative was provided as a learning tool, to illustrate the information provided to ChildStat session participants, and was not intended to be discussed in detail during the session. That said, we can certainly ask what might have happened in a session when presented with a case such as this one. I also hope you will raise any questions you may have about ChildStat as a tool for improving case practice and systems functioning on the call today.

Thanks, Sara
Sara T. Munson, MSW

National Dissemination Coordinator
National Child Welfare Workforce Institute
University at Albany School of Social Welfare